A Sermon for the Last Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (Christ the King)
Sometimes the Reign of Christ looks like a short, hunched-over women with wildly cut hair, sipping sweet tea with lemon, savoring the last bite of cake while mumbling and singing to herself.
At least, that is how Christ the King, in whose presence we gather today in worship and thanksgiving, has been made known to me this week.
Perhaps I should explain a bit more…
In the Fall of 1989, I began the first of many internships that would be a part of my preparation to be a practicing social worker. I had just transferred between schools and so, I was a little late to the registration process. And as sometimes happens, I didn’t get my first pick of internships. I didn’t even get my second or third pick. It seemed to me that the powers that be had gotten things mixed up: I planned to be an administrator and community organizer who was hoping for a high power, influential internship that would land me a great, lucrative post-graduation job. Instead, they placed me in a community board and care home which offered long-term shelter to deinstitutionalized adults with mental health challenges who had spent most of their lives in the local psychiatric hospital. This shelter, a transitional housing facility operated by the YWCA, sprang into being when there was no safe space for people with long-term psychiatric disabilities to live. The place was run-down, with peeling paint and dirty old carpet and very minimal staffing. My first day on the job I thought: I don’t know if I can do this. But, I paused. And even though I wasn’t that active in church at that time, I prayed. I heard a voice in my soul saying, “People live here; You can work here.” That became my motto.
After a few weeks of required training and accompanying staff and volunteers through psychiatric rehabilitation, support groups, and recreational group outings I was given a choice. I could remain a part of this general, residential staff team, or become an individual counselor to some of the more challenging residents. My supervisor hinted that they had plenty of students helping with the groups, but what they really needed were individual counseling volunteers. I heard my lips saying yes while my brain was shouting “No, what are you doing!” But my yes had been said, and so it was that I was on my own. Very quickly, I was handed a name and room number. “Your job,” said my supervisor, “is to get Ruthie out of her room. She hasn’t left it in weeks, except when we tell her she has to bathe.” Great, I thought, a very promising first client. As I headed down the hall toward the residential corridor, she added, “Oh, and don’t take it personally if she swears at you!”
My first visit with Ruthie lasted exactly 10 seconds. I knocked on her door. She uttered several non-sermon-appropriate words followed by “Go Away!” I lingered long enough to tell her my name, that I was a social work intern, and that I would come back to visit next week. I heard her shuffling toward the door and promptly locking it. She yelled, “Go away!” then in a quieter voice said, “Come back next week.” And so, I did. The next visit was largely the same, and the visit after that. After a few more tries and frankly, as I was about to give up, I knocked on her door one more time and heard her shuffling. This time, Ruthie cracked her door open and looked me up and down. “You can come back tomorrow” she said, “Bring fifty cents and we’ll have coffee.”
The next day I came back with a few of my saved-up laundry quarters in my pocket. Even fifty cents was a challenge to my own budget in those meager days of student living. When I knocked this time, she shuffled to the door and opened it. A tiny, bent over woman emerged wearing a coat and two hats tied onto her head with a scarf. “We’lll go now” she said, “I’ll teach you.”
Against my better judgement, I followed her down the hallway, through the main living area and past the front desk. I looked up at the receptionist with eyes that probably looked like a deer in headlights. She was admittedly surprised to see us but waved us through, asking me to sign the register book with the time we were leaving and where we were going. “Coffee” said Ruthie. “We are going for coffee.” I had no idea how much learning I was in for.
What I was in for was week after week of walking with Ruthie through the back streets of downtown Buffalo, hearing about the people who used to live there: her family, her neighbors, the unheard history of a city I thought I knew. She knew every place to get a cheap cup of coffee to warm her tired hands. She would mutter and curse and tell me about growing up during the Great Depression, about her best memories and her worst ones, too. I grew fond of her stories, even though she often repeated herself. Her life had been a very, very hard one. She knew first hand about feeling cast-out. I marveled at her great faith to live each day, and to be willing to invest her trust in me…a stranger she did not know…with the wealth of her stories. She taught me more about the power of listening and being present than any textbook could ever convey.
A few weeks later, during one of our walks, Ruthie told me the next day was her birthday. “I wish I could have a cake” she said, “a white cake, with white icing.” She paused. “And sweet tea, with lemon. Very sweet. With sugar. But not too much lemon.”
I scrounged up enough money that night to buy a cake mix, white frosting, two lemons, and some birthday candles. With what I had in my apartment, I made a two-tier round cake and frosted it. I brewed tea and added much more sugar than I thought should be in it, and sliced up lemons to float in it for flavor. I also found a sweater in my closet that I hadn’t worn all that much but that I thought she would like, and I wrapped it up.
I showed up the next day, and found Ruthie sitting in the lounge. She was wearing a her usual attire, topped by a birthday crown from a local fast-food restaurant. “Free coffee today” she said, with a mischievous smile. Of course. Then she saw the cake, and the tea, and the present. “My Birthday?!” she exclaimed. And I said, “Yes, it’s your day!”
Recluse Ruthie stood up and shuffled around, gathering up all her friends in the lounge and scooting everyone to the sun porch. She was singing, “It’s my party; come to my party!” In the hour that followed, I watched her move from a reclusive outcast to the beloved guest at the center of this birthday feast.
“I myself will search for my sheep” says the Lord God. “I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered…they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture. I will feed them with justice.”
It can be so easy for us to assume we know the difference between the sheep and the goats. Of course, we want to think of ourselves as the sheep of the Good Shepherd, so it’s natural to look around and see God in faces of those who are familiar to us. But what about the unfamlliar, the muttering and swearing, triple-hat wearing people whose stories force us to see the familiar through different eyes? What about the times when seeking and serving Christ in the other brings us into full awareness of all that we would rather ignore about this world in which we live: poverty, mental illness, addiction, confinement. Like me, the skeptical student, we become blinded to joy hidden in unlikely places and hardened by all the places and faces in this world that don’t look like we expect them to.
‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
But when did we see you, Lord?
“And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ “
The Good News that I stand here today to deliver to you is that this Kingdom of which we read is not just some future realm of possibility following this end of times parable of judgement, but is also right here, and right now. Christ the King and our Good Shepherd feeds us, clothes us, nurtures us, sustains us whenever we reach out to do the same to those in this world who come to us hungry, thirsty, wounded, and vulnerable. We are all sheep in the pasture of the Good Shepherd, and citizens of Realm of God. The taste of that heavenly banquet is not just a fabled story of some far-away dream. It can taste like warm coffee on a cold day, or birthday cake joyfully shared in community. Christ is made known to us in the breaking of the bread, and the sharing of a meal with those we least expect.
Each and every time that I close my eyes to pray with this Gospel this week, it is Ruthie’s face that I see. That is how Christ is made known to me.
“I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”
Sometimes the Reign of Christ looks like a short, hunched-over women with wildly cut hair, sipping sweet tea with lemon, savoring the last morsels of birthday cake while mumbling and singing to herself, “It’s my party…come to my party.”
Be known to us, Lord Jesus, as we meet you in each face that we see.
Be known to us, Lord Jesus, as we come to your table today.
Prepared for Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church
Sunday, November 26, 2017